COMMENTARY: Our state is nearing a fiscal crisis. Revenues to the General Fund and the Land Grant Permanent Fund are expected to be much lower this year due to the downturn in oil and natural gas prices. Now more than ever, it is my duty as land commissioner to explore every avenue to generate additional revenue for our State Trust Land beneficiaries, which include public schools and state universities.
Since taking office in 2015, we have substantially increased revenues to the Land Maintenance Fund by implementing managerial and policy improvements. This fund is the source of the Land Office’s operating budget and it also supports public education. During the last six months of 2014, the fund earned approximately $42 million. My administration in contrast generated revenues of nearly $52 million during the last six months of 2015 – an increase of roughly 24 percent.
My first year brought some tough negotiations with the Department of Game and Fish on a new easement for hunting access on State Trust Lands. Previously, the Land Office received only two cents per acre for hunters to access over eight million acres held in the trust. Meanwhile, private landowners received $1 per acre from the Game and Fish “Open Gate” program. Our negotiations resulted in an additional $800,000 in revenue that could help to fund 16 new teaching positions or the development of an early childhood program. Game and Fish’s existing budget has absorbed this new easement without increasing hunting license fees. As a longtime hunter, I am also pleased that we are expanding the number of hunting access points and campsites on State Trust Lands.
In addition to increasing revenues, we have made the Land Office more efficient and open for business. When I took office, I learned we had an extensive backlog in our right-of-way division. Over 500 applications were still pending, dating back to 2010. Industry was concerned about the excessive amount of time that it took to process applications, which impacted their ability to move job-creating projects forward on State Trust Lands. I utilized my business experience to make changes to our right-of-way process, and we’ve decreased pending applications by nearly 75 percent as a result. Turnaround time on applications has gone from an average of 300 days to 60 days. My goal is to ensure a 45-day turnaround. Due to these changes, revenue from rights-of-way applications has increased by approximately $3 million.
The health of our land continues to be a high priority. I made a commitment to voters in 2014 that I would take steps to tackle the issues that led to the devastating loss of Dixon’s Apple Orchard. Over the past year, we have managed over 3,000 acres of critical and essential projects to restore forests and watersheds on State Trust lands, which will help prevent fires and flash floods. We also cleaned up and fenced four legacy caliche pits in Lea County that had become dumping sites, as well as another illegal dump site in Cibola County.
Earlier this year, I announced a proposed trade of the fire- and flood-ravaged Dixon’s Apple Orchard with land being purchased in downtown Santa Fe by the Pueblo of Cochiti. We may not be able to restore Dixon’s Apple Orchard to its former glory, but we can return it to the Cochiti people, who regard the area as part of their ancestral lands. At the same time, the new income-producing property that will be received in exchange by the Land Office is projected to create an eight-fold revenue increase for our beneficiaries – from $30,000 to approximately $250,000 annually.
We are working each day at the Land Office to optimize revenues for our beneficiaries while responsibly managing and conserving our land for future generations. New Mexico’s most pressing challenges must be met with strength and resolve, and I will continue to base my decisions and actions as land commissioner on the philosophy of doing what is right and fair and in our beneficiaries’ best interests.
Aubrey Dunn, a Republican, is New Mexico’s land commissioner.